On August 8, 2022, officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP) arrived at my residence at 62 Moncado Street, BF Homes, Quezon City, to arrest me on charges of two counts of cyberlibel. The arrest was made shortly before 5 pm, which made it impossible to process bail, forcing me to spend the night in custody at the PNP’s Camp Karingal in Quezon City. At around 4 pm the next day, August 9, I was released from detention after posting a cash bond of P48,000 (approximately $860) for each count, for a total of P96,000 ($1,720).
My arrest and detention has been widely seen as the first major assault on democratic rights under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who assumed power barely six weeks ago. This is likely the reason for the massive outrage and outpouring of support both nationally and internationally that was triggered by the incident.
The charge of cyberlibel was lodged in March 2022 by Jefry Tupas, former press information officer of then-Mayor Sara Duterte, after my communications team made a post on Facebook referring to Tupas’s presence at a party in Mabini, Davao de Oro, on November 2021, where illegal drugs were in use. The party was raided by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Despite many news items that explicitly asserted that she was present at the party, Tupas claimed she was defamed by me, then sued me to the tune of P10 million (roughly $180,000), in addition to pressing criminal charges. She did not press charges or sue any of the many journalists and news agencies that wrote about her attending the party.
The case is clearly a case of political persecution. Tupas was incidental to a question raised by the Facebook post regarding Sara Duterte’s management capabilities as a mayor. Both Sara Duterte—the daughter of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte—and I were running for vice president of the Philippines at the time. It was in this context that I posed the question of whether Duterte as mayor knew of her subordinate’s presence at the party. That Duterte felt there was something wrong with her press information officer’s presence at a party where illegal drugs were being used was indicated by her firing of Tupas after news spread about the incident.
The Facebook post by my communications team was raised in the context of my challenging Duterte to appear in the national debates that were then being held to determine candidates’ qualifications for high office. Instead of Duterte participating in a number of televised debates—as all the other candidates for vice president did—her camp not only filed the cyberlibel charge against me; it also had the city council of Davao declare me “persona non grata” and labeled me a “narco-politician,” a charge that has negative implications for my physical security in a country where thousands have been extrajudicially executed for being allegedly drug users and peddlers. It was clear the moving force behind these efforts to intimidate me was then–vice presidential candidate—and now vice president—Sara Duterte.
The charge of cyberlibel lodged against me is a brazen case of weaponizing the law against critics. This is a dangerous trend in the Philippines, where 3,770 cases of cyberlibel have been filed, many of them by personalities seeking to silence their opponents. The most infamous of these has been the case lodged against Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of the pioneering online news and information source Rappler. Owing to this, calls to decriminalize libel and cyberlibel by concerned citizens have increased.
My lawyers have filed a petition to the secretary of justice to review and dump the Davao City prosecutor’s judgment that there is “probable cause” to charge me with cyberlibel. Until the secretary rules on the matter, court proceedings, including my arraignment and preliminary hearings, are in abeyance.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. knows that his vice president’s initiative is political to the core. Will he allow a case that so clearly threatens freedom of speech to spoil his efforts to project a positive image for a citizenry deeply divided by his family’s controversial return to power?